Know Yourself: Understand Your World

Psychoanalysis can change a person.

Psychoanalysis can change a person.

Potentials of Psychoanalysis (for better or for worse):

Sigmund Freud, perhaps the most recognized psychologist ever, had a radical idea for his time. He thought that what went on in the mind was “mostly hidden” from conscious awareness.  Freud considered this hidden section, the unconscious, to be a vast area “containing thoughts, wishes, feelings, and memories.” Freud assumed that the unconscious manifested itself occasionally in what we say or do. and that the meaning of our actions could be analyzed and found to represent these primal thoughts. We keep them repressed; “forcibly blocking them from our consciousness because they would be too unsettling to acknowledge.”  He used a certain technique called free association, otherwise, capturing and recording his patients’ spontaneity of thought.  The thoughts would then be analyzed and interpreted in an attempt to map the subconscious.  Freud felt that these techniques could help in “treating psychological disorders by seeking to expose and interpret unconscious tensions.” (Myers, 422) From his ideas, the field of psychoanalysis was born. His techniques would be expanded upon by others and eventually put into practice on a wider scale.

Freud’s personality theories and psychoanalysis would come into pressing need, according to Adam Curtis, producer of the BBC documentary series, The Century of the Self.   He tells how an increase in mental instability had occurred after the depravity of World War 2.  Prominent psychologists and world leaders felt that Nazism had created irrational individuals, and that violent nationalistic tendencies could escalate worldwide.  American soldiers faced “an extraordinary number of mental breakdowns” (Curtis, 2:08) and “forty-nine percent of all soldiers evacuated from combat were sent back because they suffered from mental problems.” The Army began to use psychoanalysis and found that the stress of combat had triggered repressed violent feelings and desires, proving Freudian theory “that underneath, humans are driven by primitive irrational forces.” (Curtis, 5:00) In an interview, Ellen Herman, Historian of American Psychology, states that politicians believed that because of what was witnessed in the war, “that human beings could act very irrationally because of this sort of teeming and raw and unpredictable emotionality…the kind of chaos that lived at the base of human personality could in fact infect the society social institutions to such a point that the society itself would become sick…that’s what they believe happened in Germany in which the irrational, the anti-democratic went wild.” (Curtis, 6:45) It was felt that the use of psychoanalytic principles held hope in erasing these irrational emotions. Freud’s daughter, Anna, expanded on his techniques and led the psychoanalytic movement after his death.  She thought it was possible for people to learn how to manage these dark “inner forces.” (Curtis, 9:45)

In 1946, The National Mental Health Act would be signed into law to raise awareness of mental illness.  Brothers Carl and Will Menninger, who led psychiatry efforts for the Army,  would train hundreds of new psychoanalysts.  They hoped to, according to Curtis, implement Anna Freud’s psychoanalysis techniques on a wider scale.  Robert Wallerstein, Psychoanalyst for the Menninger Clinic from 1949-1966, described the Menningers’ belief that “psychoanalytic thinking could make for the betterment of society…because you could change the way the mind functioned; and you could take the ways in which people did hurtful things to themselves and others and alter them by enlarging their understanding… this was the vision psychoanalysis brought…that you could really change people…and you could change them almost in limitless ways.” (Curtis, 12:38-14:45) Dr. Harold Blum, found that a person who went through the psychoanalytic process became “more insightful, much more understanding, and a much better regulated person…the regulatory aspects of the human mind would really be in charge, instead of being overwhelmed by our passions and our darker impulses.” (Curtis 16:37)

In The Century of the Self, interviews were conducted with many people closely linked to Freud and the Menningers, as well as leading psychoanalysts.  Its credibility as a product of the BBC makes it a trustworthy source.  The information was presented attractively and the language used in the film easily accessible to the average viewer.  The use of historical video footage strongly supported the narration and interview material.  It is impressive to watch footage of 1930s and 40s irrationality, especially during the segments on Nazism.  The video captures the nationalistic fervor and unjustified violence of the time, as shown in one segment with pro-Hitler Austrians chasing Jewish people down the streets. (Curtis, 6:30) The irrationality of their behavior is clearly obvious when shown in context with the historical narrative.  I understand the Army’s concern about combat veterans returning home disturbed.  It is still a concern today, which makes me wonder why we keep “corrupting” humans with darker repressed thoughts and emotions by going to war.  Being at ease with this dark imagery and creating a well rounded individual by looking inside oneself seems purely beneficial; not only for war veterans, but every human being.  I agree with Anna Freud in that through introspection and discussion one can “conquer their inner demons.”

Even though I am certain of the hope that psychoanalysis poses, I have to agree with Dr. Owen Renik, former editor in chief of the American Psychoanalytic Association. He believes that “the profession is in a great decline” and concedes that “the decline will continue.” Renick feels that the failure of its lies in the fact that it “took on a self-perpetuating guild mentality.”  This could be because of the glut of psychoanalysts after the passing of the National Mental Health Act. I theorize that the broadened market of psychoanalysts was probably one of lesser quality or training than the “masters” that had worked in the field decades earlier.  Renick feels that psychoanalysis has lost its “spirit of open-ended inquiry (and)…orientation above all to be helpful to the patient.” I agree with him about the importance of the field and I am just as optimistic about its ability to bounce back.  Renick says it’s possible to mitigate and “reverse the decline, but it will be necessary to escape the clutches of an establishment that, unhappily, has increasingly gotten away from the original scientific enterprise…it means applying concepts scientifically to better understand patients. (Carey)

Psychoanalyst Lucy Holmes is less cynical about the field in her article Wrestling with Destiny: the Promise of Psychoanalysis. She asks, “Can knowledge save us from malevolent destiny? If we can be courageous enough to confront what we don’t know or…what we don’t want to know, can we win control over our own destiny?” Holmes believes this is the type of therapeutic potential that psychoanalysis offers.   She makes the claim that destiny exists and calls is “repetition compulsion”—a “dark power in every human being that unchecked can propel a person against his will to a tragic end.” Holmes mentions the work of LaPlanche and Pontalis, who describe this “as an ungovernable process originating in the unconscious” in which “the subject deliberately puts himself in distressing situations, thereby repeating an old experience that he does not consciously remember.” She also recalls Freud, who stated, “What is not remembered will be repeated.” Holmes believes that if left unchecked, “our fate becomes an automatic and impulsive repetition of unpleasurable situations.”  (Holmes, 44)

Holmes then transitions to the ideas of Bollas, who she felt looked at destiny in a positive manner.  Bollas believed destiny as being the “urge to articulate our true selves…the creative potential in a person’s life.”  Holmes feels that psychoanalysis exists to help an individual meet “with his destiny, to articulate his true nature.” Holmes views psychoanalysis as “a corrective emotional experience…therapeutic in its simple essence—spending time with a person who is completely focused on understanding you.” (Holmes 46-47)  Aiding in this process is a modern comprehension about the evolution of the human brain.  She describes neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s studies of brain as consisting of “three basic structures…each with “its own way of perceiving and responding to the world”…the “three brains” have evolved methods of communicating with each other.”  The more primitive brain governs mechanical and unconscious behaviors, otherwise called instinct. The second brain, or the limbic system, developed next and allowed for the senses to “operate together and create a primitive memory system.”  Holmes feels that “emotions are generated but do not become conscious here.” The relatively modern third brain, called the cerebral cortex, developed over the last one hundred thousand years as the “center of thinking and reasoning… where consciousness resides.”

The hope with psychoanalysis is that patients can “convert into language the electrical impulses pulsing up from the primitive brain.” These impulses pass through circuits in the second brain as feelings and eventually manifest themselves in the consciousness in our repetitive compulsions.  With the psychoanalytic process, “we are inviting access by the cerebral cortex to…the lower brains.”  Holmes believes the process fortifies “the young and often overpowered upper brain against the instincts and primitive feelings.”  When these impulses from the lower brain are articulated, “instincts lose their primitive power…and feelings can be felt and verbalized.” She feels that as individual analysis progresses, “communication from the lower two brains gradually becomes data, not commands…the patient can evaluate this data and then decide how she wants to deal with it…at this point, the patient takes charge of her own destiny.” (Holmes, 48)


Carey, Benedict. (2006, October 10). An Analyst questions the self-perpetuating side of therapy. Retrieved from

Curtis, Adam. (Director). (2002). The Century of the self episode two [Video]. Retrieved from

Holmes, Lucy. (2007). Wrestling with destiny: the promise of psychoanalysis. Modern Psychoanalysis, 32(1). Retrieved from

Myers, David G. (2008). Exploring psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

neat cover image found here.

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